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How to Reduce the Risk of International Assignment Failure

Declan Mulkeen

20 Feb 2017

Sending employees abroad is expensive. According to Worldwide ERC, sending an employee on an international assignment for three to five years can cost a company more than $1 million.  With so much money at stake, why do some organisations give little thought to the cost of a failed international assignment – an expensive oversight given the fact that only 58% of international assignments are deemed to be a success. Let’s look at some of the ways you can reduce the risk of international assignment failure. 

Steps to Reduce the Risk of International Assignment Failure

Reduce the risk of international assignment failure

1. Prepare your Assignees for the Unknown and Unfamiliar

So how can organisations avoid an international assignment failure?  In an article published by Human Resource Executive Online, intercultural training was identified as a key component in contributing to the success of an international assignment. However, the article also points out that many organisations give little or no thought to cultural training when making decisions concerning global mobility.

The value of intercultural training cannot be underestimated.  Frustration can be immense when arriving in a new country with no practical understanding of how things are done, especially when compounded by a language barrier.  Culture shock can be profound when you can no longer use your experience to work out how to do things in a new environment – particularly if that environment does not respond in the way you expect.

Intercultural training was identified as a key component in contributing to the success of an international assignment

2. Invest in Learning the Local Language Early On

Some organisations offer language training, although many employees themselves may consider it to be a luxury, especially if English is spoken in the office, as there is a common perception that they have ‘a lot of work to do’.

But they miss the point if they don’t start to learn the local language, even when English is spoken in the office, they are ill-equipped to pick up the cultural values and nuances that are delivered through the local language.  These cultural values and nuances may be key to a successful business and social integration. And at the end of the day, you can only get so far in English.

3. Intercultural Training Helps to Make Sense of the Unknown

In addition to language, intercultural training provides invaluable information and strategies that ease the process of assimilation into a new culture and avoid nasty surprises. Setting expectations of the new country and culture can reduce stress caused from discovering the hard way that ‘things work differently here’, especially during a time of crisis.

Local cultural values and nuances may be key to a successful business and social integration

4. Do Not Forget the Family

Organisations should also keep in mind that many employees move abroad with their families, introducing a more complex set of challenges to the adaptation process.  This is especially true if the employee’s partner plans to continue a career of their own.

Managing family issues can also involve older children, elderly relatives back home and a host of other issues that are important to the employee.  How family matters are managed can be crucial, as many international assignments fail not due to the employee themselves, but due to a family matter.  Intercultural training provides insight on how to improve the adaptation process of the entire family.

Setting expectations of the new country and culture can reduce stress caused from discovering the hard way that ‘things work differently here’

5. Intercultural Training Helps Expats Perform As If They Were At Home

Intercultural training is not simply a matter of language or learning about the customs and traditions of living abroad.  Business is done differently in different countries – even in branch offices of the same organisation and even in countries where the same language is spoken as your home country.  Training and coaching can prepare the employee to understand the differences in business etiquette and navigate the often complex business and social rituals that govern daily business transactions.

Business differences go way beyond whether to shake hands or give out a business card at the beginning or the end of a meeting

Training and coaching can prepare the employee to understand the differences in business etiquette and navigate the often complex business and social rituals that govern daily business transactions.

Business differences go way beyond whether to shake hands or give out a business card at the beginning or the end of a meeting.  Many organisations fail to consider the impact of different communication and leadership styles abroad.

Motivations of employees, business partners and customers may be very different to those in the employee’s home market.  This is another area where intercultural training and coaching can have a positive impact, especially when delivered before the employee has made crucial mistakes.

6. What Does It Take to Be A Successful Assignee? 

Human Resource Executive Online summarises leadership qualities of good candidates for international assignments.  These include:

  • Social adaptability
  • Cultural fluency
  • Respect for other customs and practices
  • Ability to tolerate uncertainty

These qualities are very different than the “traditional” leadership qualities of confidence, strength and an attitude to succeed  – very often qualities imported from an assignee’s home country culture.  Along with a passport and a sense of adventure, a successful international assignee should also bring a new-found intercultural awareness and global mindset with them on their new assignment to reduce the risk of international assignment failure.